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Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Posted by christy2828 (My Page) on
Sat, Feb 14, 09 at 20:18

I need some techniques to get my 3 year old to eat dinner. I have tried several, but it is still my biggest struggle of the day. She eats a fine breakfast and a fine lunch, but at dinnertime she just gets this look in her eye and you know it is going to be difficult!! She does not get a snack beyond 4 o'clock, and dinner is typically around 7. We have tried - leaving the plate at the table with freedom to get up but no other food options until it is time for bed and then the plate is cleared. Clearing the table with the plate and that is the end of it - no snack or desert, and no more argument about dinner. Not serving her dinner, and waiting for her to ask for it. Taking away favorite toys for an entire day. Putting her in time-out (Time-out is very effective in this house, but she seems to enjoy it at dinner time). Putting her in her room and bringing her down only to eat dinner. Not letting her get down from her seat until the plate is cleared or it is time for bed - whichever comes first. Eating our desert right in front of her - I'll say this works, but it is not ideal. It feels like teasing to me, and I really don't like to eat desert. Skipping an afternoon snack altogether, but again not ideal. I know she is hungry at dinner, it is just a power struggle. Besides, children need a small afternoon snack - I need one, too!

She is not starving, I have no qualms with putting her to bed hungry, but I'll say she eats a big breakfast!! We rarely have arguments at lunch, just dinner, when we are tired and she is tired, and she is looking to control the situation. Does anyone have any tips, suggestions or techniques? I need to get a handle on this situation, and I am stumped!! Thanks :) Christy


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

You've made it an issue, it's a power struggle. Remove the struggle, period. Three bites of whatever is preferred, and she's done. She can have more, of course. When supper's over, it's over, but no fight. Don't say anything. No snacks as supper wasn't eaten (unless she ate the three bites of all offered...), but leave it at that. She just wants control over her life, and found that supper is the time when Mom has the least amount of fight in her. Small healthy afternoon snack...and watch what she's DRINKING between lunch and supper, if she's filling up on liquids, she may not be hungry. Praise for all she does eat, no comment on what she doesn't.

This too shall pass.

Vickey-MN


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

I agree you have a power struggle going on and it should stop, your the adult here. I think forcing a child to eat leads to obesity.

I was a small child, both my parents were unusually tall and my dad worried about me. He took me to the doc to see why I didn't eat as much as every one else did. The doctor said to "leave her alone, she will eat when she gets hungry". My son and his family stayed with us for awhile and they fought with one son to get him to eat. I stopped the fighting and told my grandson he didn't have to eat but he had to sit at the table with the rest of us and there would not be any snacks for him later. He ate.

When I cooked something new I made the kids take one bite to see if he liked it. I never made my boys clean their plate. If they left a lot of food on the plate I suggested they not take so much next time. I read an article about making children clean their plates. It said it will teach them to over ride the full feeling and it leads to obesity.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

It's not important.
It's your job to offer her nutricious food, it's her job to eat it IF she's hungry. Only require that she sit at the table with your for a reasonable dinner time (20 mins or so). Spend the time talking about pleasant things, your day, silly stories. It's even OK to talk about the food you're eating, how good it tastes (just don't over do it), just enough to make her curious and remember why she's sitting there. At the end of the time, ask nicely "Are you finished?" If she is, clear the plate, it's gone. Sometimes my kids would ask for something else later, after not eating dinner, but my standard line is to calmly say "Sorry, hungry people eat their dinner. You must not be that hungry." My experience has usually been that if they have no choice but to sit there, they end up at least nibbling a little. But if they don't, that' OK, but we have to sit at the table together nicely. The kitchen is no open 24 hours.

That was the advice of my pediatrician when DS#1 was small. They need to eat because of internal clues of hungry, not because it's a rule to eat now. They should listen to their body. It's normal for the appetite of children to fluctuate. For now, getting those two earlier meals in might meet her caloric requirements. And that's fine, just make the healthy food choices available at dinner and leave the rest to her. A few months from now, she might hit a growth spurt and want more of her dinner. Don't worry and don't make it a battle-worthy issue.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

If she eats a big breakfast, lunch, and has snacks until 4pm, maybe that's why she's not hungry at 7pm.

IMO, 7pm is pretty late for dinner for a 3 year old. What time is her bedtime?

After lunch, give her a very small snack no later than 2pm and have supper at 5 or 5:30 pm.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Thanks everyone :) It is certainly a power struggle - it is also the only meal my husband is home for, so she has our full attention!! Vickey, I think you're on the right track, I think she is getting feedback from us, and that is why it continues. She LOVES skim milk, but I do give her water even though she doesn't prefer it. Occasionally she gets Gatorade. I'll switch her to solely water in the afternoons.

Obesity is not really the concern, I don't force her to eat her whole plate. I want her to sit and eat and behave, not stuff her face. We eat healthy, and her favorite foods are the fruits and veggies. It is the main course or some side dishes that I have the biggest struggle.

Stephanie, I have tried your suggestion and the problem I have is that she wants to go to the bathroom, or she wants a hug, or she needs to pick up her napkin (that she has dropped 5 times on purpose), or she just sits there and will not even touch her utensil. I've tried giving her a choice of utensil - to go around the problem. And when she does eat, she only eats what she likes. I'd prefer her to eat some of what she didn't even taste, but I suppose that is another struggle!! I don't want her to be stuffed, but eat what I serve when it is time for dinner. I don't make more than one meal, unless it is something not appropriate for her (too spicy, etc). Believe me, she always has room for a small bowl of ice cream or brownie when she does eat her dinner :)

Khandi, she is hungry, she just wants to have control. Seven is late, but it is our routine. We started having dinner earlier when she was younger, but it slowly worked its way back and she adjusted. Her snacks are usually a small bowl of blueberries or strawberries or an apple and a stick of mozzarella or american cheese. Occasionally a small bowl of Chex mix or graham crackers, but mostly it is fruit and cheese.

Thanks for all of your suggestions, she certainly makes life interesting!!! Christy :)


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

So it sounds like the issue is really keeping her at the table rather than actually the eating part. Your focus seems to be in the right place, an enjoyable family time for all, not on the actual amount of food eaten.

Maybe you can make a behavior chart. Make a short list of the behavior you expect from her: stay in your chair; keep things on the table; speak in a polite voice. Check off the behaviors she does (that way it's not all or nothing). When she gets enough checks, there is a reward. Say, a "carpet picnic," we get to spread out a blanket and eat dinner on that instead of at the table. That lets her get a break from the table rules when she earns it. My kids used to love carpet picnics when they were smaller!


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

When I was growing up, my dad didn't get home from work until 6:30, so dinner was at 7. The only "problem" with eating at 7 was that my friends thought it was really weird! ;) There were 5 of us, and the food battles would have been the same at 5:00 ;)


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Any pediatrician will tell you that a three year old will eat when she's hungry and will not starve herself to death. Kids at that age have to exert their own will somehow, and sometimes food/eating is where they choose to do it.

Quit fighting this battle with her. It's ok to make her sit at the table with you, and put a plate of food in front of her since it is dinner time. But I wouldn't ask her to eat anything. She eats what she eats, whether it's two bites or none. When dinner is over, if she says she's through, clear the table.

I wouldn't change her breakfast lunch or snack either. If she's hungry she should eat. If you don't let her eat when she IS hungry and then expect her to eat when YOU want her to, you're only extending the power struggle.

The more you try to get her to do what you want, the more she will resist. Eating is one of the few things she can control at this age, so let her. Sounds like she's eating nutritious things so why fight about how much or when? She'll come around eventually when she wants to, when you don't try to make her do it.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

My observations are....7pm might be a bit late for her to have dinner. At that age, I think I was doling out dinner around 5pm.

You could try getting her involved in the preparation. Just simple things like mini pizzas, cook them and then sit down to eat them together. What fun, with mummy.

Take all the aggro out of the evening, it is a habit, and she probably expects it to happen.

I used to do all sorts of sneaky things to get dinner over and done with when mine were little. I used to regularly feed mine in the bath, after a boiling hot day. They thought that was fun. Picnics on the lounge room floor, outside picnics. Making eating a pleasant experience, at the moment it isn't for either of you.

Oh, another thing I did was, get mine involved in shopping for the food. Samples of food from the fruit shop used to be a regular thing. I think they loved that. A bean here and there !!

Once you do the pleasant things, they know about them, and you can use that as a bargaining chip. Like "If you sit at the table like a big girl and eat what is on your plate, we can go and have our fruit outside...".

Enjoy each and every moment with your little one, for they grow up and fly away....


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

My 3.5 year old doesn't eat much dinner either. It is a bit late really for her we do dinner like you around seven. She is able to eat what I give her as a snack around 4 also. So I know she we be fine really if she doesn't have dinner with us. She'll often want to drink what I give her at diner but will gag at putting a half a spoon full of food in her mouth. Unless it is a favorite-plain rice she'll eat any time so I fix that many nights-she doesn't touch many foods at dinner.

She sometimes claims hunger at bed time. We give her the same plate of food from dinner or just toast.

Trying to keep our emotions from showing helps. No big show from mom or dad means less for her to react to. No real battle. We just state. This is dinner. If you don't want it you can have a time out until dinner is over then you will go straight to the tub and straight to bed. No play time in tub, no reading at bed time. We don't do deserts at dinner so there is no taking that away.

Other nights we ignore the not eating completely and consider our job done because we have put nutritious food in front of her. She doesn't eat it...oh well. She goes to bed without it. It depends on weaather or not she has eaten other meals recently and weather we have the energy to deal with possible night time waking due to hunger later.

We had her actually wake up at 4 0r 5 am two or three times needing to eat. I'd get her toast or yogurt (plain or with a touch of honey) then she'd go back to sleep. I started feeding her a snack around 4 pm whether the rest of us were eating or not. That helped and no more early morning wake ups even if she has skipped dinner.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

First of all, I have to comment about the time. A 3 year old needs a minimum of 12 hours of sleep a day. Generally, at that age, it's good to get them in bed by 7:30-8, up by 7, with maybe an hour or 2 nap in the afternoon. Unless your child is getting up much later in the morning and taking a long (3 hour?) nap, you've created a very serious problem by trying to get her to eat at 7. You see, what a lot of parents don't realize is that children's bodies physically react differently from ours. When we get overtired, we start to wind down and get sluggish. When children are 'running on empty' so to speak, their poor little bodies release loads of energy--hence the child who gets all wound up and hyper in the evening, to the point where it's almost impossible for them to relax and go to sleep. I've seen mothers over the years who commented (about letting their toddlers stay up till 9-10 o'clock), "Oh, he's got so much energy, I'd never be able to get him to bed earlier."--not understanding that the best time to get a child to bed is before they've reached that critical level. There is even medical evidence suggesting that a significant percentage of the cases of diagnosed Attention Deficit with a hyperactivity component are caused by insufficient sleep--and those cases can be completely cured by getting the children to bed at a reasonable hour. Mind you, that's not the cause of every case, but it's a large #.

Know I was a little long-winded there. But given that you say this is an ongoing problem, late in the day, that doesn't happen at other meals, I believe there's a possibility along with the power-play issue, it's probably also related to the fact that your little one is getting overtired--and therefore a bit hyper--by that time of day.

A few suggestions. first--stop punishing her at all. That's just setting up an adversarial position AND setting the stage for future eating problems of all kinds. Demands and consequences are reinforcing the problem between you at meals.

Some suggested getting her involved in preparing the food. There loads of great kids cookbooks out there. Many with really attractive photos of the food, lots of them that have healthy recipes. On your next trip to the library, pick up a few, let her page through and find some things that appeal to her and let her help make them. Also, how about letting her start a little vegetable garden. Even if you live in an apt, she can grow some things in pots. Kids are always very proud of what they've been involved in, and much more likely to try a food that they've prepared or grown themselves.

Another suggestion I truly think it would be worth you considering--given your late dinner hour. Why not serve her dinner in place of her late afternoon snack (could be leftovers from your last night's dinner), and then, when you sit at the table, so late in the day for her, give her the kinds of foods you'd normally give her for a snack. Maybe a bunny salad (pear half with grape or cherry nose, almond slice ears, blueberry eyes), or something else that's nutritional and appealing, but light. Would surely make mealtime more pleasurable. And would be much more healthy for her--she really shouldn't be going to bed with a heavy meal still undigested in her tummy anyway.

Note: just so you know where I'm coming from, I'm a former Parenthood Ed teacher and also a specialist in children's cooking--I've taught toddler through elementary cooking classes for over 20 years now.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

I love making dinner, and she typically is invoved with every meal. I bought a large stool and she can safely help prepare meals with me, which she enjoys. She is in bed by 8:30 and wakes up usually around 7:30. She takes a nap about every 4 days, she isn't ready to give them up completely, but she also doesn't need one everyday. Since birth, she has been on the lowest end of the spectrum for amount of time sleeping, unfortunately for me!! Teaching her good sleeping habits is very important, and I feel that she is getting sufficient sleep and has learned how to fall asleep at a very young age. I do not want to fight with her, I will just let her dictate how much she eats. No treat if it is not sufficient!! Ideally and sometimes dinner is served at 6:30, but more often than not lately it has been 7:00. There are a lot of transitions going on, we are preparing for a new baby and are scheduled to move from the DC area to South Florida at the same time the baby is due. So currently the house is on the market, we are showing the house, everything has to stay perfectly clean, Mommy is getting pretty tired at 6 months prego, a lot of our stuff is packed up and put away, and Daddy is going out of town a lot!!

I like the idea of a behavior chart, I actually did just buy one a month ago, and it is currently packed up. I'll see if I can't dig it out or even start awarding stickers for each tasted and or finished portion. I really appreciate all of the advice, soon enough she will be the big sister, and the cycle will begin all over again!!! Christy :)


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Sounds like you've got a lot going on. And molehills look like mountains when you're tired. She also sounds like a generally happy, well-adjusted little girl. So a little snag now and then will pass.

You don't have to drag out a chart, just make/print a calendar on paper, or get a cute little calendar for a couple dollars with pictures she likes. Put a stamp, check, star, sticker... whatever.. on the days she succeeds at whatever behavior you are working on.

I have been where you are, relocating, buying/selling homes, pregnant, small child(ren). My kids are all about 3 years apart. (One of our moves was even to south Florida.) This will pass (and something new will replace it, ;o) sorry). Focus on your -values-, and be willing to lower the -standards- when you need to. Know the difference. That frame of mind will get you through. The value here is family coming together at the end of the day; the standard is eating all the food. Maybe make a routine of asking each other certain questions during dinner. She'll get used to it, and soon she think about her day in terms of what she wants to share at dinner, and look forward to dinner as the time to do that.

Congrats on all the exciting events in your life right now! And good luck with all of it.

Our lives have reached the point I knew would come one day, we're all going in different directions weeknight, and sometimes weekends, too. Four kids, they are all on a team of some sort, school activities... we "divide and conquer:" DH takes two kids and goes their way, I take the other two and go our way, and dinner is separate. It's nice when we get an evening free and can finally reconnect again over dinner. Here's to rained out practice tonight! Cheers!


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

A whole lot going on over which your daughter has no control. Mom's pregnant, strangers in the house a lot, mom constantly cleaning things up, everything getting packed, etc. This just reinforces her need to have control over SOMETHING. It might take a while for things to settle down, after the move, after the new baby comes. As long as she is eating nutritious food during the day, I wouldn't worry.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

I was just lurking, but since I've been there, done that---forgive me if I am repeating something someone else has already said (I didn't read all the replies), but if you are concerned about nutrition, why not give her more of a main meal at lunch time? Then give her a tiny amount of what you're having at dinner and if she eats it, fine. My son was a very stubborn child and would see you in He** before he would do something he didn't want to. You sound as if you're doing a fine job of raising her, so don't worry yourself. As long as she's getting the nutrition she should at sometime during the day, you'll both be fine.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Now that you've posted your daughter's schedule, 7 is definitely too late to feed her a full, hot dinner. Seems her little body is telling her that, already, and she's trying to tell you the only way she knows that she cannot eat like that, that late in the day. It takes 2-3 hours to digest a full meal. So if you're eating at 7--she's not finishing up until 7:30 or so, then going to bed within the hour? That's too much. I'm not trying to criticise your mothering skills, truly--I KNOW it's difficult with work, and all you've got on your plate, and wanting to have family time around the dinner table. Understand, I tell you this as a professional in the field of home ec/family living--it's not healthy for your child to eat a full meal, then almost immediately head to bed with that food still in her tummy.

Obviously you care about her health. That's so clear from your post--I know you're a good mother. It's just that you're looking at this from your point of view (wanting to have that wonderful, warm family table--which is certainly a good thing, most times). Best thing you can do for her is let her have her meals earlier, then have just a light snack with you as you eat your dinner. The snacks you describe giving her for her afternoon treats would be appropriate--some fruit, a little cheese, a cup of yogurt. And if she wants a bite of what you're eating, by all means share with her, but don't expect her (or let her) eat a full serving of heavy foods like meat, starches, etc that close to bedtime. Not only should that alleviate the powerplay problem, but in the long run, your daughter will be much healthier, and less likely to develop an overweight problem in the years to come.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

I meant to include in my post earlier, I do like that idea of feeding her earlier by herself. With everything going on, it will be difficult to change dinner, and I plan on staying with my parents for about a month (hopefully not much longer!!). I can't help move (lifting and the dust - I'm very allergic) and I shouldn't travel in the last month so I want to get a doc lined up where we are going. Unfortunately, dinner is about 7:30 - 8:00 there. So feeding her a dinner at 5:30 on her own, and then a treat (yogurt, fruit, jell-o) at our dinnertime sounds like a fabulous idea!! Thanks again everyone for all of the responses, I really appreciate them :) Christy


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Been there, done that. If you make sure you are not giving her junk, then don't worry. A 4pm snack for a 7pm dinner sounds rather late, but since she is getting good food at that snack time, sounds ok. If you are concerned she needs more protein or green veggies, make that her snack, but try to give it a little earlier. Don't make eating such a chore or battle. Just limit what she is offered to eat to good food, and you will be fine. She is only 3! If you want her to join you and daddy for dinner, explain that Daddy wants to visit with the family all together for a few minutes. Perhaps you should look at dinner as being served in two courses--4:00 and 7:00.


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Christy, your daughter isn't going through what my son has (he has an eating disorder...yes at age 3 and has had since two weeks after birth). My son goes to bed at 10 and sleeps to 9. That's what he needs for sleep :) he also takes a nap now (he didn't sleep more than 15 mins at a time the first year and never more than an hour at a time for the next year and a half so he owes me naps until he's 40).

I think swapping out the meals (snack with you, "dinner" when you were doing that snack) is a great solution. But just for grins and giggles, I'll share some of my son's lessons (we spent three months in the hospital with therapists and doctors learning to eat).

First, I wouldn't try the big guns since it sounds like your daughter is healthy. If this issue is causing a dangerous weight loss (more than 10%) big guns are necessary...but again ;) It does not sound like that's the case. So for the little guns :)

Those hugs and napkin drops are control issues and you need to learn to be tough about them. If she drops her napkin, do not pick it up without the help being earned. Ie "dropped napkin...complaint" then you say, I'll pick it up after you take a bite. Do not address the issue beyond that. Don't ask her to take a bite again, do not pick up the napkin, do not give her a hug, do not laugh if she trys to preform her way out of the situation, just move along and eat, and even if she's screaming like a banshee...don't touch the napkin.

Yes that's hard, but it's a big deal. That alone has made a huge difference in getting our son to eat (he's chronic fail to thrive so we do use the big gun techniques as well). If she takes the bite, immediately pick up the napkin and return it to her, or give her the hug or whatever it was that she was stuck on :) And say "Good Job taking that bite" with great enthusiam, and make sure this comes from both you and your husband. She's 3...that positive attention (on the YEA ON THE BITE reaction) is going to be a big deal to her. If she drops the napkin, wants the hug, whatever, do it all over again. We do it aproximately 40 times a meal..or did. The great thing about this technique is eventually they don't need the over abundant praise after each bite. And you don't end up with the power struggle.

Many of the kids in our feeding program developed their problems in the toddler years. The stubborn little poops like control, and they can learn to turn off their hunger drive (my son has no natural hunger drive at all). You've nothing to worry about if this is only a dinner time thing...but if it extends to other meals, you have to nip it in the bud big time, and really, this is a good time to start so it doesn't extend as she continues to struggle to gain control of her life.

There is no answer for every solution. Every child is different, and some have bigger issues than others. Bed times vary per child, and that's ok. Eating times do as well. And eating patterns, and even eating habits. We are so thrilled if our son eats voluntarily that I could give rip what he eats...that means we don't limit his food to "healt6hy food". If he wants an M&M while we're eating dinner (he joins us at the table late as well, but he only has his chosen snacks which he mostly plays with) we're happy to see him eat the M&M. He needs the calories. Unlike most children though, while he's allowed as many M&M's as he wants, he rarely eats more than a couple.

Anyhoo, I'm a professional "mom" who's spent over a million bucks on my son's eating disorder, so I just wanted to share a trick that made a big difference for us (and one we saw work with all of the other kids as well). It's hard as a parent to listen to your child scream for whatever it is they want...but it's a control issue on your side too :) They can't always win (my son is 3 now...I totally get how much they try to win LOL)

Best of luck!!!


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Boy has she ever got you right where she wants you! Dancing to her every demand.
Been there.....done that....bought the Tee shirt, wrote the book and was interviewed on TV!! LOL!
This too shall pass....believe me! she will grow up and have children of her own to torture her just as she is torturing you
I say give her a good snack at 4....fruit and cheese or asomething similar....let her sit at the table.....don't mention her eating "dinner" but present a small plate and if she eats it fine or not....
I have a family of grand kids who had a "special meal" until about 3 years ago ( age 11!!)w hen I said...eat what's on the table or don't eat.....and it seems their mother woke up!
Just go with the flow.....remember....you are "Da mommy" and don't let her back you into a corner.....what do you care if she starves herself to death?....and make her believe it!!
Good luck darlin!! She's one smart cookie!!....and the battles to come will have you reeling!
"But Moooom! Everyone has their belly button pierced!" LOL!
Enjoy!
Linda C


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RE: Techniques for getting a 3 year old to eat dinner

Personally, I would set her food aside for when she did get hungry. A doctor gave that advice to someone in my family and it worked.

My SIL had a grand baby that wouldn't eat no matter what they did. I told her she would eat when she got hungry just keep the snacks away from her. When I visited them I found out they were letting her drink a pint or more of milk and candy and cookies, when ever she got hungry. Of course she is not going to eat when she is full.


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